December 29, 2010

The Efficiency Dilemma, or The Jevons Paradox

This piece by David Owen in The New Yorker ("The Efficiency Dilemma") asks the question: "If our machines use less energy, will we just use them more?" The abstract follows:
Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century was the world’s leading military, industrial, and mercantile power. In 1865, a twenty-nine-year-old Englishman named William Stanley Jevons published a book, “The Coal Question,” in which he argued that the bonanza couldn’t last. Britain’s affluence and global hegemony, he wrote, depended on its endowment of coal, which the country was rapidly depleting. He added that such an outcome could not be delayed through increased “economy” in the use of coal—what we refer to today as energy efficiency. He concluded, in italics, “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.” Jevons might be little discussed today, except by historians of economics, if it weren’t for the scholarship of another English economist, Len Brookes. During the nineteen-seventies oil crisis, Brookes argued that devising ways to produce goods with less oil—an obvious response to higher prices—would merely accommodate the new prices, causing energy consumption to be higher than it would have been if no effort to increase efficiency had been made; only later did he discover that Jevons had anticipated him by more than a century. Nowadays, this effect is usually referred to as “rebound”—or, in cases where increased consumption more than cancels out any energy savings, as “backfire.” In 2000, the journal Energy Policy devoted an entire issue to rebound. It was edited by Lee Schipper. Schipper believes that the Jevons paradox has limited applicability today. Jevons wasn’t wrong about nineteenth-century Britain, he said; but the young and rapidly growing industrial world that Jevons lived in no longer exists. Most economists and efficiency experts, after studying modern energy use, have come to similar conclusions. But troublesome questions have lingered, and the existence of large-scale rebound effects is not so easy to dismiss. Discusses the history of refrigeration in relation to the Jevons Paradox. The steadily declining cost of refrigeration has made almost all elements of food production more cost-effective and energy-efficient. But there are environmental downsides. Most of the electricity that powers the world’s refrigerators is generated by burning fossil fuel. Since the mid-nineteen-seventies, per-capita food waste in the United States has increased by half, so that we now throw away forty per cent of all the edible food we produce. According to a 2009 study, more than a quarter of U.S. freshwater use goes into producing food that is later discarded. Also discusses the improved efficiency of air-conditioners. In the United States, we now use roughly as much electricity to cool buildings as we did for all purposes in 1955. The problem with efficiency gains is that we inevitably reinvest them in additional consumption. Paving roads reduces rolling friction, thereby boosting miles per gallon, but it also makes distant destinations seem closer, thereby enabling people to live in sprawling, energy-gobbling subdivisions far from where they work and shop.
Update: David Owen has just published a book length version of his argument--The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse (Riverhead Trade, 2012), which I await with baited breath. David and I both attended Colorado College and were friends and budding intellectuals back in the day. Here also is a longer extract from his New Yorker piece. 2/24/12

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